A prophecy, murder, guilt, paranoia, madness and the original Queen of Mean. It’s pretty heady stuff for high school seniors to tackle — full of sound and fury and signifying something. Westlake High School English students are studying “Macbeth” and taking it to the stage with the help of the Shakespeare Theatre Company in Washington, D.C.
For the past several years, English teacher James Mascia has applied for and been selected to participate in the theater company’s Text Alive program, a free, semester-long integration that takes Shakespeare’s works out of textbooks and onto the stage as the plays were meant to be enjoyed.
“You get a better sense of everything,” said Victoria Roddy, who is playing a porter.
Cheyanna Alabi is cast as Lady Macbeth. The program is helping her understand the iconic role. “You learn what it means,” she said of “decoding” Shakespeare. “As actors, you have to understand the emotions behind the words.”
Over 10 weeks, Kathryn Tkel, an actress and teacher with the company’s education department, has visited Westlake to help students understand the text and the times of Shakespeare. “It’s semester long because you can’t really just jump in … you have to spend some time with Shakespeare,” Tkel said. The classes spend time learning who the playwright was and what the world was like during the time he was working. Shakespeare was a man of the people, crafting stories that continue to resonate today. “It’s seen as highbrow, but it’s not,” Tkel said. “His work taps into what we know as human beings. He told everybody’s stories.”
The language can present an obstacle at first, but nothing students can’t get past. “Shakespeare has a secret code to unlock,” Tkel said. Text Alive gives students the basics to make it accessible. “It’s about getting young people excited and comfortable with Shakespeare and giving them the tools to use for reading it,” she said. At the end of the program, Tkel will return to Westlake to discuss the experience with students.
Students around the metropolitan area are studying a selected act. Mascia has two classes participating this year — fourth period is working on Act 2, Scene 3 when it’s learned Duncan is dead; sixth period is performing the banquet scene of Act 3. On May 10 all the classes will come together at Sidney Harmony Hall in the District to perform the play from start to finish.
While some students are on stage, others work behind the scenes. Each class makes props, costumes and some students are selected to co-direct. One of the lessons Text Alive wants to impart is “how theater is made and how it’s a collaborative art form. Props and costumes supports the production. They’re making props, doing the heavy lifting,” Tkel said. “The stuff [they] make supports the story. Everybody gets a job that’s integral to the show.”
Each class comes up with their own setting for the individual act they are producing. At Westlake, fourth period has set its in Africa; sixth period’s act has 1920’s New York City as a backdrop.
Westlake has taken part in performances of “As You Like It,” “Othello,” and “Measure for Measure,” through Text Alive. “It’s a great program,” Mascia said. “It gets students into the text of the show rather than just reading it. They better comprehend it.”